Next time you’re driving north along Interstate 35 in Merriam, glance to the top of the hill to your right.
You’ll see a string of stores — Home Depot, Hen House, Old Navy, Marshalls — on land that 20 years ago was a little more than a blighted neighborhood.
Those stores are part of Merriam Town Center, a monument to the redevelopment achievements of former longtime Merriam Mayor Irene French, who died at home in her sleep early Tuesday. She was 86.
French, who was mayor for 20 years, left office in 2001 amid turmoil spurred partly by the city’s redevelopment efforts, including the controversial use of eminent domain.
But area leaders remembered her on Tuesday as a tenacious fighter who early on recognized challenges faced by older suburbs beset by aging infrastructure with little or no room for expanding their tax bases.
“She was an extraordinary leader,” said David Warm, executive director of the Mid-America Regional Council. “She was probably the first mayor in this region who understood that older suburbs needed to redefine themselves and it was a very difficult process.”
Warm credited French with creating a new future for Merriam with an emphasis on redevelopment that has been followed by other suburbs across the Kansas City area.
Local leaders believe efforts to redevelop the site where Merriam Town Center is today paved the way for the other projects, including the arrival of furniture store IKEA.
“That was truly a turning point for the city,” said Merriam City Councilwoman Nancy Hupp.
Not only did Merriam Town Center pump more tax dollars into the city’s coffers, it also was credited with helping increase nearby property values by 91 percent from 1996 and 2005.
Sales taxes in Merriam nearly tripled since about the time Town Center opened in 1997. They make up a little more than half the city’s general fund, compared to about 45 percent in 1996.
“She was very courageous in being able to see and envision better things in the community,” said Eric Wade, who worked as Merriam’s city administrator when French was mayor.
It wasn’t always easy. In French’s last several years in office, she fended off a number of criticisms, including the city’s highly publicized use of eminent domain to take property for a BMW car dealership.
The city’s use of eminent domain to take William Gross’ property and turn it over to another private interest for economic development drew national publicity and local criticism.
One Libertarian group ranked it among the worst abuses of eminent domain in the country.
French stood her ground. She said the BMW project had value to the overall public by expanding the city’s tax base for public projects that would benefit everyone.
She pointed out that Gross was paid $1 million for the one-acre parcel near Shawnee Mission Parkway and I-35.
“It was the right thing to do,” she said years later, “and we did it by the book.”